Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Phoenix Coyotes began the 2011-12 season amidst all sorts of uncertainty. Star backstop Ilya Bryzgalov had bolted for Philadelphia, leaving them with a tandem of Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera in goal. That seemed completely untenable.
On top of a number one goaltender, the Coyotes also lacked an owner. The situation had become so large that the franchise had no choice but to address it head-on. Their ad campaign boasted that the team did "hockey the hard way".
But they meant it. The Coyotes played hard all season and it paid massive dividends. It was a banner year in Phoenix, and I mean that literally. Led by the stunning breakout performance of Smith in goal, the Coyotes earned their first division title banner in the franchise's 32-year history.
And they weren't content just to win the Pacific Division. They also won their first playoff round since arriving in Phoenix -- and then, just for good measure, they won another one before falling victim to the unstoppable LA Kings in the Western Conference Final.
Sure, it was heartbreaking at the time. It always is, to be so close yet come up short. But considering where the Coyotes began the season, where they finished can only provide hope that the nightmare in Glendale is slowly coming to an end. (Really slowly, mind you. Greg Jamison's purchase of the franchise is still unofficial.)
Still, it's something. And with Shane Doan showing faith in the franchise and re-signing, Smith entering year two as a stud, and Dave Tippett still running a tight ship in Phoenix, the Coyotes are hoping to build on last season's successes.
But was last season a fluke, or are the Phoenix Coyotes for real?
"We have Shane Doan's soul in a jar'"
The biggest loss: Taylor Pyatt, who is a New York Ranger now. He wasn't exactly a major offensive producer, but his eyes -- his beautiful, beautiful eyes -- will be missed.
In terms of offensive producers, the departure of Ray Whitney is going to hurt like Hell. Whitney gave the Coyotes a team-high 77 points last season, but he also turned 40. Since the Dallas Stars are totally into that, they signed him in the offseason.
The Coyotes patched the Whitney-sized hole in their roster by signing Steve Sullivan. While he fills the team's need for a smallish old guy, he won't be able to provide the same offence. This is a major concern.
On the back end, Adrian Aucoin signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets for $2 million. Aucoin is slowing down at the tail end of his career, but he was sturdy shutdown defenceman and, on a team like the Coyotes, that was a plus. GM Don Maloney has dealt with his departure, however, as well as the losses of Michal Roszival and Kurt Sauer, by bringing steady blueliner Zbynek Michalek back from the Pittsburgh Penguins. He still remembers how to defend, right?
The most important transaction the Coyotes made this offseason was the four-year, $21.2 million deal for captain Shane Doan. He may not be notching 70 points a year anymore, but he remains the soul of this team because, as mentioned, they have his soul in a jar somewhere.
At forward … The Coyotes are even thinner than last year, and they were getting it done by committee even then. Their best offensive line was Whitney, Martin Hanzal, and Radim Vrbata, and Whitney really was the offensive catalyst. Hanzal and Vrbata are going to be in tough to generate more scoring in his absence, especially since Hanzal's more of a two-way guy than a scorer.
A full season of Antoine Vermette could help to offset the lost offence. While first line centre Hanzal has never even had a 40-point season, Vermette is only two years removed from a 65-point campaign. If he can settle into a groove, he might be able to re-find his offensive game. He'll have Doan on one side and either Mikkel Boedker or Sullivan on the other to help.
But scoring schmoring. The Coyotes may not be as offensively punchy down the middle as some of the Western Conference's other juggernauts, but Hanzal, Vermette and third line centre Boyd Gordon are among the Conference's most formidable defensive trios. They may not score a lot of goals, but their opponents won't either.
On defense … Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keith Yandle, Rotislav Klesla, and Zbynek Michalek make up a very balanced top four. OEL and Yandle are capable of starting the breakout, and Klesla and Michalek are steady shutdown d-men.
David Rundblad and veteran Derek Morris make up pairing number three, and if the Coyotes are lucky, they could also have top prospect Brandon Gormley, fresh off a Memorial Cup win with the Shawinigan Cataractes, to work into the lineup.
In goal … The tandem of Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera isn't as amusing as it used to be. Smith actually improved on the performance of Ilya Bryzgalov, notching 38 wins, a .930 save percentage, and a 2.21 goals against average. He just barely missed out on the Vezina.
He should be a frontrunner for a nomination again this time around. especially because the Coyotes' most underrated move of the offseason was retaining the services of goaltending coach Sean Burke. His work with Smith in particular has been extraordinary, and the fact that the two will be together again bodes well for the Coyotes.
Nothing beats "Hey Nineteen", the off-key, excruciating, but somehow very charming Shane Doan tribute/Steely Dan parody that absolutely nobody asked for.
Don Maloney and Dave Tippett return as the GM and coach of the Coyotes, respectively, and they have to be one of the league's most quietly effective tandems. Both have done masterful jobs of working to ice a competitive team year after year despite doing their work under some very tenuous circumstances.
Tippet's system is air-tight. The players know if they play it the way he's drawn it up, they'll succeed. And Maloney finds guys that complement the system perfectly.
Mike Smith thrived in the Coyotes' system last season, taking his team to the Western Conference Final. What can he do for an encore?
Last year, in his first full NHL season, Oliver Ekman-Larsson had 32 points. I think he cracks 40 this year. I also think this is the year he established himself as one of the best, most creative offensive defencemen in the Western Conference. If the Coyotes improve, it's because he improved.
Mikkel Boedker had just 27 goals in his first 208 NHL games, but he had a great postseason, scoring 4 goals and 8 points in 16 games, including game-winning goals in Games 3 and 4 of the first round. Now he'll have a major opportunity to prove that he's taken his game to the next level permanently. With Whitney gone, Boedker should get an opportunity alongside Hanzal and Vrbata on the Coyotes' top line. He needs to make the most of it.
Glendale is in the hole. Their debt payment for new year projects to be between $20 and $30 million.
They're considering laying off 250 public employees, including police officers and firemen, closing two of their three libraries, one of its two aquatic centres, and cancelling all -- that's every single one -- of their city's events. They've raised sales taxes.
Over the past two years, the city has borrowed $50 million from water and sewage treatment to cover the cost of the Coyotes.
"We've got a long way to go before we're going to be talking about bankruptcy," said Diane Goke, Glendale's finance director. Except that, by saying the word bankruptcy, she inadvertently talked about it. In short, people talking about it.
Wait. These attacks are supposed to be funny and this one is actually just horrifying. Well, uh, Shane Doan is a ghost or something. Whatever.
Definitely not paid for by the city of Glendale, because they can't afford to buy anything.
The Coyotes will be the same team they were last season, more or less. Offensively non-threatening, defensive-minded as all Hell, heavily reliant on Mike Smith. It's a system with little margin for error, and last season they got some serious breaks.
I just don't see them getting as many this year. They're still a playoff team, but another division title seems like a long shot. A seventh or eighth finish is far more likely.
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